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Frank Mooki Leepa

One on One | An Ode to Sankomota

by Ts'eliso Monaheng / Images by Aryan Kaganof / 02.12.2011

Kingsway, Maseru’s main street, should have been bustling with lines upon lines of mourners queuing to touch his casket; the airwaves should have been saturated with the beautifully-haunting textures of his compositions; a public holiday should have been declared just to honour his immense, immeasurable contribution to the art of music-making.

But alas, this is Lesotho, and we are not particularly well known for admiring our heroes – nor are we adept at recognising them. The 27th November, 2003 marked the end of an era; Frank Mooki Leepa, guitarist and awe-inspiring frontman of the band Sankomota passed away. This happened just a month before their scheduled appearance at that year’s jazz festival.

The history of Sankomota is as long-winded as it is interesting; it is a dense tale punctuated by varying degrees of bad timing, terrible decisions and bad luck. Starting out in 1975 under the name Uhuru, copyright claims from the Jamaican Michael Rose’s Black Uhuru meant that they had to re-think their entire strategy and re-focus their musical energies as Sankomota. It was no easy feat considering that Uhuru was already well known across the Southern African region by the late 70s. Adoring followers in both Lesotho and South Africa could not get enough of their groove-oriented, Afrikan-tinged melodies and ‘get-up-and-dance’ song dynamics. That they were really good at what they did, did not hurt either.

Sankomota

According to Frank Leepa, “Sankomota” was the name of a Pedi warrior who lived during the times of King Moshoeshoe. The band adopted it and re-imagined the moniker into a symbol of unity regardless of one’s tribe. Notions of ‘belonging’ were overlooked in favour of a more encompassing sound. The lyrics often contained entire verses sung in Zulu, Pedi, or Sotho; the music – stark and dense in equal measure – carried elements of the band’s influences. Melodies criss-crossed mbhaqanga’s high-brow technicality, jay-walked on reggae’s combustible street-corners, and shaved off jazz music’s jaded vision to form an amalgam of what Frank referred to as “malo” (spirit/soul) music.

This is a band which has served as my sanctuary whenever pop music seemed to lose track; Frank Leepa’s erudite arrangements, complemented by Ts’epo Ts’ola’s wailing, substantial vocal intonations, are excellent from whichever vantage point. Erstwhile frontman Ts’ola was to leave the band in 1991 to pursue a solo career, leaving Leepa to take the reins – yet another blow. This, however, only seemed to inspire the ever-changing cast – Black Jesus, Budhaza Mapefane, and co-founder Moss Nkofo – to soldier on.

Sankomota

They were still under the leadership of Leepa when tragedy struck, yet again, in 1996. This time around, it was a road accident while the band was on their way to Cape Town. Some members passed away in that crash, and I can still vaguely recall the haunting images of the wrecked taxi on the news bulletin that evening.

To me, Sankomota represents memories of a childhood well spent; the tapes on long trips, the songs on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and the constant rotation of “Stop the war” and “House on fire” on the radio. Sankomota’s music was significant in that it seemed to unify an entire nation; their concerts are rumoured to have been celebratory occasions with multiple encores from the crowd. They are reported to have outwitted and outshone jazz giant, Dizzy Gillepsie when he performed in Lesotho in the late 70s.

Their first, self-titled album Sankomota, was recorded in Lesotho in 1983 with the assistance of Lloyd Ross’ Shifty mobile studios. My joy, a few years back when an acquaintance showed me that very first album – an LP still in mint condition – cannot quite be captured in words. They went on to release five more albums, the last being Frankly Speaking in 2001. The album had its moments (“Another Accident”, “Moonlover” – which featured guest vocals from the late Nana Coyote), and while Frank Leepa’s prowess for arrangement still permeated the grooves, the band had somehow disintegrated into a shadow of its former self. Too much had been chipped away at the edges; too many struggles endured; too much ‘seems’ to have been lost.

My favourite album to this day is After the Storm. Every song evokes strong memories; me, a youth in the early nineties toying with sounds produced by what remains, arguably, one of the best musical exports to ever emerge from Lesotho and make an impact on the broader jazz community. It might not have been their best work, but it was my first encounter with their disarming spirituality and polished musicality.

At his funeral, promises of an institute dedicated to his memory were made. Delegates, musicians, and the laymen gathered to pay their last respects. In retrospect, it may seem that we betrayed the memory of a legend. Yet with every Sankomota song played, with every anecdote shared about the collective’s genius, the legend that is Frank Leepa and the gargantuan force that is Sankomota’s music lives on.

I shall finish my ode with these words from their song, “Malala Pipe”: ‘I believe you were born for greatness/ the light in your eye is [the] spark of god.’

*All images © Aryan Kaganof.

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RESPONSES (28)
  1. Warrick Sony says:

    Nice piece -I loved their sound as a 3piece AfroRock band and went to Lesotho with Lloyd to help him with the recording. That album is available here to listen too in full quality or to buy as download which comes with a whole lot of pics that Lloyd took during the sessions.
    Frank should have been a big star. A great singer/ songwriter and, as you intimate, utterly unappreciated
    http://sjambokmusic.com/2011/07/05/sankomota-first-album/

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  2. Africa is a Country says:

    Great writing. You take me back to my teens in the 1980s and early adulthood during the transition from legal Apartheid. My favorite album is the later “Writing on the Wall” released in 1989. Frank Leepa was fire. RIP

    But before we get drenched in nostalgia, Lesotho has been producing some great music of late as you have written yourself. At its heart is Core Wreckah, Kommanda Obbs, and Konfab (in Cape Town) to name a few.

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  3. Africa is a Country says:

    Hi Ts’eliso: Too bad I didn’t make the connection re Core Wreckah. Nice writing as I said.

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  4. happy brown says:

    My eyes are watering man, this band reminds me of my pops

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  5. dudue says:

    Hey, this music came to my attention when I had my first job in 2005 at a jazz lounge yooh they can never be replaced! *house on fire*

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  6. Lazola Belle says:

    Really nice piece, I absolutely love Sankomota – their music never fails to lift me up.

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  7. Lk says:

    Uhuru… Yes people let us all admit, Sankomota was a greatest band ever. The level of thinking just changes whenever I listen to their music. Pure music, no computerized effects, the music that gets inside your heart. I can’t sing, however when singing Maposholi, Obe etc, you’d swear I was in the group. Big ups banna ba Moshoeshoe…

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  8. theo says:

    fell in love with these guys at a tender age of 12,,now am 36 ,,,i mite not have understood the sotho words but i understood the workmanship and the artistry ,,,long live the ultimate african band of all time .

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  9. MK says:

    Bumbed into this article when trying to find the lyrics of ‘Maposholi and even hoping to find anyone who may have tried to unlock what Frank and Sankomota was singing about. I must say this is great writing Ts’eiliso and I absolutely share your sentiments. As a nation and the people, we do no how to celebrate our heroes. Frank was one talented son of this nation that we should be singing his praises for the entire world to hear. This should even be easy as the world already knows who Frank is. Once again, great writing.

    By the way, does anyone have the lyrics of Maposholi and even what the band was singing about in that song? There are some muffled words that I do not here even though it is mostly sang in Sesotho

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  10. khanda zimbabwe says:

    I concurrent, they are the greatest african hand every. Their music is spiritual and time less.

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  11. Lazola Belle says:

    @MK Tsepo seems to be singing about a girl he saw who was selling sweets at a spaza shop or something of that nature. The girl was so pretty and her beauty reminded him of his love Maposholi. He then goes back home and she welcomes him back on some “take off your shoes and rest your feet, this is your home, you have been gone for too long”. That is the crux of it.

    It is a killer tune, what I grapple with is whether it is to be taken literally or it has a deep idiomic connotation to it. But none the less, I think it’s a charming song which got them a lot of ladies when performed live at concerts, I can just see how it made females in the crowd feel special, especially when sung just after “Nka Lerato” which is a massive song as well.

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  12. Geko Publishing says:

    I am writing a biography of Sankomota – its quite far – should be done in March … Frank Leepa’s biography is being edited as we speak – will also be released soon … Watch this space …

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  13. theo says:

    hi there folks ,,,does any 1 have any live recordings done by sankomota ,,,,i have got one ,,,,,but the item was done some time ago ,,these guys were celebrating 25yrs in show business,,,,i want some more

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  14. Lazola Belle says:

    @theo I have been looking for such material aswell. Are you at liberty to share with me the one live recording you have?

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  15. theo says:

    hi there lazola its not a problem i will pass it to ,,,the challenge is i stay in zimbabwe but i think i will be in south africa during the easter break ,,we can hook up then and pass it on to u

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  16. Lazola says:

    @Theo sorry for the extremely delayed reply. When next are you going to be in South Africa?

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  17. Lerato says:

    Memories of a legend indeed. I attended the 10year celebration of his life at QhuQhu Ha ‘Mants’ebo yesterday at his house. We are waiting in anticipation for it to become a place celebrating once a great musician Lesotho has ever had. Thank you to the organisers of that remembrance. I had from highly placed sources that it will even be bigger next Year, with a stage for musicians/artists to perform for people who will attend.

    To the organisers: I am happy you didn’t rely on the empty promises that were made by one minister at Ntate Leepa’s sendoff. Ha kere, ke’a ‘mmona!

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  18. Lerato says:

    I HEARD from a dadadadadada…….

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  19. name says:

    looking for OBE by Sankomota

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  20. chabsa says:

    @MK the lyrics of maphosholi transalated (tried my best not good with it)
    look at lifateng(place may be a shop) they hired clerk (lady)
    her name is maphosholi she is selling english sweets
    you will fall asleep if you it them
    the miners are missing her
    getting credit is not a problem
    she is such a sweet heart you can leave the
    trouser if you dont have the money
    her beauty is known all over from tele to mechachane

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  21. simwinji zeko says:

    Ts’eliso, your writing is erudite, flowing and very well structured. I wish we had more African writers of this quality rather than the narcissistic bombast that masquerades as information that is out there.
    I only saw Sankomota once, in 1988 in Hackney, London. Over the years I rubbed shoulders with people that had worked with them, especially when living in Jo’burg. I have been looking for ‘After the Storm ‘ for years after losing my first copy. Hope I find it soon.
    Hey Warrick Sony, if you read this, how are you? I did some recording sessions in Valley Studios with Louis Mhlanga and others in 1994 and you were the recording engineer. Should have asked you more about Sankomota and Tananas!

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  22. Lepesho Sekhobakhobe says:

    I always read the article about these legends written by Peter and whom was considered the manager of the group. Their story is so spellbinding due to their struggle with their music, more especially because they operated during Apartheid. As Peter said, they sometimes did not make money from the concerts they made, they were just happy that they can be able to cover their transport costs and other expenses and nothing remained. As i read this, i was so touched by all i heard from that article because their music really reflects those times and they were even banned in South Africa by the whites from making concerts there as a result of their song “Africa will unite” saying that they were terrorists.

    I love their music, i listen to their music almost everyday, among all their songs i salut them in (maposholi,Obe,papa and all the songs in their very first album from there is the history about them.

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  23. botha says:

    @ theo, I’m in Zim,. Bulawayo I got my video cassette erased accidentally, how can I get to you for your copy???

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  24. Surasak says:

    Enjoy the Rest of Your Adventure .Hey JonathanThanks for writing as much as you did. I have eyjinong reading it all.You’ll have plenty of time to write about it when you get back. Enjoy the ride while your there.. Time alway goes to fastAs always, Be safe, peace and loveDebbie

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  25. T says:

    Some of us still remember ‘Captain’ very well and we are proud of him for great productions and he is still an inspiration to a lot of musicians around the world. A motivator to all nations.

    spread the word where ever you are: “I must tell you – that every nation has a story. The joys and the pains of a past
    -the hopes of a future.
    When voices of men will be heard across the earth – when the sun will rise, and
    the earth will turn – to celebrate the day – the birth of a brand new nation.
    And the shooting star will make your dreams come true.”

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  26. T says:

    “I must tell you – that every nation has a story. The joys and the pains of a past
    -the hopes of a future.
    When voices of men will be heard across the earth – when the sun will rise, and
    the earth will turn – to celebrate the day – the birth of a brand new nation.
    And the shooting star will make your dreams come true.”
    Frank Leepa 1983

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  27. Thamzy says:

    Looks like im.the only one posting this year: 2016, their bio by Peter is no longer available, who else have it?

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